Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1550
Paul Metcalf should need no introduction. He is seventy years old, the author of fifteen books. In the judgment of Guy Davenport, he is “the most innovative of contemporary American writers, the only one to invent a new form for prose.” His books, however, have gone virtually unreviewed. He does not figure in surveys of contemporary literature. Over the years, three or four little magazines have devoted special issues to his work (most recently Sagetrieb, Winter, 1986), but the critics have yet to discover him. Even readers who know Metcalf’s work have a difficult time keeping up with him. Published by small presses and haphazardly distributed, his books must be tracked down; some of them, such as Golden Delicious (1985) and Firebird (1987), have been issued only in expensive fine press editions with very small printings.
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To a great degree, this state of affairs is a measure of Metcalf’s originality. No ready-made term fits what he is doing: He is neither a poet, a novelist, nor a historian, though his work partakes of the skills of all three. Only his first book, the novel Will West (1956), unconventional but still within the bounds of the genre, can be readily pigeonholed. With his long-gestating second book, Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (1965), Metcalf found that “new form for prose” celebrated by Guy Davenport, the possibilities of which he has continued to explore.
A book by Metcalf is a collage of texts; a given page is likely to include short passages from several sources, often in different typefaces, sometimes interwoven with Metcalf’s own words, sometimes not: The effect is polyphonic. This weave of texts is laid out in a manner that recalls the later Cantos of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson, yet Metcalf’s style is finally his own.
It is not a style that lends itself to brief quotation. Metcalf’s intention is to allow distinctive voices to speak for themselves, with a minimum of commentary. In Apalache (1976), for example, which ranges from the prehistory of eastern North America to the twentieth century, he makes poetry out of lists of words:
accokeek acquackup the susquehanna and juniata, across the mountains at kithannesasquesahanock, patowomek, chesepiook choccoloco,chockolog fakahatchee, loxahatchee meddybemps, saukatunkarunkout of the valley of menaun-gehilla to the mouth of little kanawha
This passage is from the opening pages of Apalache, in the section entitled “Bash Bish,” where Metcalf weaves Native American words with extracts from the narratives of early European settlers, awestruck at the beauty of the New World: two distinct visions of the land, which he presents from a third perspective as well, in the language of the geologist:
appalachia: resistant relic of metamorphism, the roots and stumps, the truncated base of diastrophic tilts and foldsthe forelands, the sediments, the clastic wedgesflanked by monadnocks in the piedmont, by swarms ofultrabasic rock in the crystalline oldland of new england
With no editorializing, those Indian words evoke the richness and the profound otherness of lost cultures, just as the geological perspective invites a new appreciation of the land. There is intellectual energy—lyricism, irony, poignancy, humor—in Metcalf’s surprising juxtapositions: “Bash Bish” is followed by a chapter entitled “The Feare in ye buttocks,” which recounts the hardships and terrors of the settlers.
The same principle of organization that shapes Metcalf’s pages animates larger units of composition as well; his books frequently juxtapose provocatively diverse subjects. Metcalf’s own description of his book Golden Delicious catches the spirit of his enterprise:Again, it’s a juxtaposition of three ideas or episodes. It’s almost entirely documentary; very little of my own writing, some in the first and third chapters, none in the second. The first chapter is made up of writings by the early Puritans about their experience. . . . The emphasis there is on religious ecstasy. The second chapter is the California Gold Rush, the forty-niners; that is on greed and suffering and everything that Americans will go through in pursuit of gold. And the third chapter is the origin and development of fruit culture in the Pacific Northwest; that again is almost entirely documentary, and it aims at, and I think has, an essentially lyrical quality.
Metcalf’s method might sound like a recipe for self-indulgence. In fact, it is a unique combination of formal innovation, Yankee discipline (his books are crafted with care, and they come equipped with substantial bibliographies), and playfulness (“we are never so energetic as when we are having fun”).
Where Do You Put the Horse? stands to the side of Metcalf’s principal achievements. The dust jacket and title page of this small book designate its contents as “essays.” It could more accurately be called a miscellany. There are about twenty brief book reviews collected here, a handful of essays, and several reflective pieces, a page or two in length, such as one might expect to find in a writer’s notebook. There is also a brief lecture, given at the University of Massachusetts in 1975.
In his long career, this is the first such collection Metcalf has published, and his readers owe a debt of gratitude to The Dalkey Archive Press. (A similar collection, announced as forthcoming from another small press in the mid-1970’s, failed to materialize.) That said, there are complaints to register. First, there is no introduction. Who put the collection together? (No editor is credited.) Was it Metcalf himself? Is this in fact a selection, as one assumes, or is it a more or less complete collection of Metcalf’s miscellaneous prose? The book reviews pose another problem: They list only author and title, omitting publisher and (with the exception of the pieces on Paul Bowles) date of publication. It is clear that some of these pieces are not reviews strictly speaking but rather brief critical essays (in some cases written long after publication of the book under consideration) presented in book-review format. Still, the publication data should have been provided.
The appeal of this collection is immediately evident in the title essay, one of several valuable pieces in which Metcalf reflects on his own work. Its point of departure is a comment by a reader, bookstore proprietor Douglas Macdonald: “Sometimes I have the feeling that Metcalf is asking too much of the reader, that we must almost BE him to appreciate his work fully. In fact he is asking no less than this of the reader: change the structure of your mind.” Metcalf demurs, and in so doing clarifies the fundamental distinction between his work and much of the avant-garde writing which it superficially resembles.
Expressing his skepticism concerning would-be “reformulators of. . . consciousness,” Metcalf notes that such alchemists of personality find a ready audience in an America plagued by narcissism. Not only cultists and consumers of pop psychology but also avant-garde writers are eager to plunge into the depths of the self. In this connection, Metcalf recalls his response, as a young man in the 1930’s, to a remark made by a “knowledgeable academic”: “There are two interesting things in the world—integration and disintegration—and they are equally interesting.” At the time, Metcalf says, he was mightily impressed by the professor’s aphorism, but he has come to think otherwise: “Integration and disintegration are not equally interesting. Pathology is not as interesting as health.” Rejecting the plunge into the self for its own sake (“most people’s personal souls, my own included, are a rat’s nest, and I find them just plain dull”), Metcalf quotes himself, taking a passage from the lecture mentioned above, a credo of sorts:I would think of history—and the varieties of language that ride with it—as a vast resource, into which one plunges with energy, comparable to sexual energy, demanding and focusing all one’s vitalities. Following this, there is the second phase, which I learned absolutely from the poet Charles Olson: History is important only insofar as it impinges on the present. First, the plunge, the descent into hell, the near-drowning, if you wish; then the return to the surface. Because, if you drown, who cares? And if you don’t plunge, who cares?
It is here, Metcalf observes, that he “part[s] company with so many of [his] contemporaries. To them, the plunge—into one’s personal soul, or whatever—is all there is, there is not even a thought of emergence, of return.” The sanity of that distinction is refreshing, as is Metcalf’s freedom from the glib and the trendy. At the same time, this title essay hints at a blind spot: Throughout his work, deeply grounded in “the physical, the physiological, the corporeal,” Metcalf seems to undervalue spiritual experience, unwilling or unable to distinguish between the faddish and the genuine and thus dismissing it all.
There are other fine pieces in the collection—the longest, on Charles Olson, combining an unsparing memoir with a critical overview of The Maximus Poems. There are also three pieces that center on or take off from Metcalf’s great-grandfather, Herman Melville, with whom he wrestled in Genoa. Where Do You Put the Horse? is not the first book to give to someone who has not read Metcalf, but it is a useful addition to a body of work that gives us our history seen afresh.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20
Booklist. LXXXII, August, 1986, p. 1654.
Choice. XXIV, January, 1987, p. 764.
Sagetrieb. V, Winter, 1986, Paul Metcalf issue.
Small Press. IV, September/October, 1986, p. 81.